A video clip of a family being forced by movie watchers to leave a cinema hall in Mumbai for not standing up when the national anthem was played has gone viral few month back and the response from lawyers is mixed.
Condemning the incident in strong terms, S. Srinivasa Raghavan, vice-president, Madurai Bench of Madras High Court Bar Association, said that there was no statutory obligation that citizens should stand up during the playing of the national anthem. The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 prescribes imprisonment up to three years or fine or both only for those who intentionally prevent singing of the national anthem or cause disturbance to any assembly engaged in singing the anthem.
“However, a Union Home Ministry directive states that people should stand to attention when the anthem is sung or played. But even that grants exemption from standing if the anthem was played as part of a newsreel, documentary or film,” he points out.
The Supreme Court too had relied upon that directive in April 2004 to set aside an order passed by Madhya Pradesh High Court to withdraw Karan Johar’s movie ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ from all cinema halls till scenes depicting the national anthem were deleted, he added.
Advocate S. Srimathy, however, holds the view that the Centre should prohibit playing of the national anthem in places such as cinema theatres where standing up could cause disorder and confusion.
“Film-makers can always make the audience understand that a scene was related to national anthem even without playing it, and citizens don’t require a statute or an order requiring them to stand up for the national anthem. Respect should come from the heart,” she concludes.
What does the law say about the National Anthem?
Section 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, says, “whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian National Anthem or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
Does the Act make it mandatory to stand for the National Anthem?
The Act limits itself to prescribing punishment for someone who prevents others from singing the National Anthem, or disturbs those who are singing the Anthem. The law is silent on ‘sitting’ or ‘standing’ while the Anthem is playing.
What has been the government’s stand on this issue?
The General Provision of the orders issued by the Government of India on January 5, 2015, states: “Whenever the National Anthem is sung or played, the audience shall stand to attention. However, when in the course of a newsreel or documentary the Anthem is played as a part of the film, it is not expected of the audience to stand as standing is bound to interrupt the exhibition of the film and would create disorder and confusion rather than add to the dignity of the Anthem.”
Therefore, while the first part of the provision seems to make it mandatory to stand whenever the National Anthem is played, the second part creates an exception. But the rules nowhere prescribe a penalty for not adhering to it and, therefore, it has to work in accordance with the Act.
Further, under the Cinematograph Rules, 1983, a “feature film” has been defined as a “fictionalised story film exceeding 2,000 metres in length in 35 mm or corresponding length in other gauges or on video”. Hence, a “feature film” may not be in the ambit of the government’s instructions at all.
Has there been an authoritative ruling by the Supreme Court on this subject?
In 1987, a two-judge Bench of the top court ordered a school in Kerala to take back three children who had been expelled for not singing the National Anthem, although they stood during the Anthem. The children desisted from singing because of their conviction that their religion did not permit them to join any rituals except in their prayers to Jehovah, their God.
The court ruled that there is no legal provision that obliges anyone to sing the National Anthem, and it is not disrespectful to the Anthem if a person who stands up respectfully when it is being sung does not join in the singing. The court, however, did not deal with the issue of whether it would be disrespectful if a person chose not to stand during the National Anthem. The judgment ended with the message: “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.”
What did the Madras High Court say in its September 15 order on the issue?
Madurai-based lawyer R Pandi Maharaja had filed a public interest petition in the Madras High Court, seeking directions to owners of cinema halls in the state to stop playing the National Anthem before the screening of films. He complained that only a few stand up to give respect to the Anthem, while the majority continue to sit. The HC said that “the nature of disrespect alleged is vague”. Also, playing of the National Anthem is permitted under the General Provision of orders issued by the Government of India. The court dismissed the PIL.
So, what is the final position on this matter?
As things stand now, there is no judgment by the apex court, or a legal provision, or an administrative direction that makes it mandatory for people to stand during the National Anthem. That they do so is essentially an expression of personal respect.